Today, I’m going to show you a real-life (and easily reproducible) example of how Google handles hidden content in its SERPs. It’s one of the most discussed topics in the SEO world, and, as of today, pretty much everyone knows that hidden content is somehow devalued in rankings.

Of course, in this case, “hidden” doesn’t mean anything sneaky or black-hat: it’s totally common and allowed to put content behind a tab or a “view more” link for UI purposes, and you will never be penalized by Google for that. However, they clearly stated that they handle that kind of content in a different way: they consider much less important for rankings what requires an action by the user to be shown.

Google confirmed this more than once, like in this Stack Overflow thread:

Q: What about content that is already in the HTML but hidden (because it’s behind a tab)?

A: That’s perfectly fine. We will index that but the content’s weight will be lower since it’s hidden.

Gary Illyes’ answer is super clear, so we know how it works. But, how do they handle that content in practice? Do they just rank it lower or some specific mechanism comes in when someone looks for a string that refers to a hidden portion of content?

The test

I did a very little test to see what Google is actually doing with that. I followed these steps:

  1. Chose a small set of domains with some content hidden behind tabs
  2. Searched on Google for exact phrases belonging to those pieces of content, with the site:domain operator
  3. Verified if the same behavior in the SERPs is replicated in the same way across all my searches

One of the websites I checked is MoneySuperMarket. You can see a three-tabbed box in the homepage, scrolling down a little bit.

MoneySuperMarket's tabbed box

I searched on Google for an exact phrase hidden behind the third tab (“Popular products”), and here’s what I found.

Tabbed content in MoneySuperMarket: Google doesn't show it in SERP

The only organic result is the MoneySuperMarket’s page that contains the hidden text, so here’s the proof that Google indexed it. But look at the description: it doesn’t contain the search phrase at all. Doing the same test with other pages or websites, I saw exactly the same result.

Searching, for example, an exact phrase contained in the second tab, I got this.

Hidden content: another example

Two results here: the homepage, that confirms the same behavior, and another page where that phrase is actually in a visible portion of content, and is in fact shown in bold.

Takeaways

Google indexes “invisible” content, as long as it can crawl it in the code. If you search for that content, Google returns the page that contains it but doesn’t show it in the description, which already is some kind of “demotion” (a SERP result that contains the searched text in bold is certainly more attractive for the user). But, according to Google, they demote it also from a pure ranking point of view, and the last screenshot I reported here seems to confirm this.

The first result is the one that actually contains the text in a visible page section. I did a quite “uncharacterized” search, so there shouldn’t be other significant relevance factors coming in. Both of those pages contain that text, but Google recognizes that one renders it immediately, while the other doesn’t, so it ranks the first one better than the second. Also, in this example, the second page is the homepage of an important website, so it should have a lot more authority than the other one (a product page), but still it appears to be demoted for this particular search.

NB: this behavior refers to the current desktop-first index. Google already said that, with the mobile-first index in place, they’ll give hidden content full weight, due to the obvious UI restrictions of the mobile environment.